Posted by: scribe9 | December 24, 2009

What Christmas spirit?

It’s not beginning to look a lot like Christmas, and since this is December 24, it obviously never will. A few decorations here, some Christmas Eve and Christmas morning services there, an occasional Christmas song on the radio there. Note that I don’t say carol—most of the songs are modern, including last year’s “Last Christmas.” Perhaps the oldest I heard today was Jester Hairston’s “Mary’s Boy Child.” Christmas concerts tend to be all pop stars, not necessarily singing Christmas music. That’s why Emily’s been streaming the all-Christmas-carol station from Portland, and tonight Rick’s playing trumpet along with the carols in his computer’s library.

It’s not that New Zealanders don’t start in plenty of time. When we arrived in October, we were chagrined to see Christmas ornaments and wrap already for sale. We needn’t have worried. You can walk into half the stores in town and not know it’s close to the holiday. A columnist for a big-city paper, who immigrated from Ireland less than a year ago, said he wasn’t homesick until Christmas season. He longs for commercial excess (and, having spent a week in early December in the Emerald Isle, I can assure you that Irish commercial excess can’t hold a candle to the American version). On Christmas, he plans to draw the curtains at 3 pm and sit in the dark watching Christmas movies, rather than going to the beach like the New Zealanders do, where there are living Christmas trees, Pohutukawa (Metrosideros excelsa), green, white and red at just the right time:

 Even Christmas Eve isn’t such a big deal. In Portland, most of the stores are closed by 6 pm, and when I worked in an office downtown even my Jewish colleagues left by 3 pm or so, because clearly no business was going to be done the rest of the day. But here, business seems to go on as usual, although the churches have services in the evening. Probably it’s because Boxing Day, the 26th, is also a holiday—so this year everyone gets a day off on Monday because the 26th is a Saturday.

There’s no need here for Turn Off the Christmas Machine—it never gets turned on, probably because Christmas is the beginning of summer, so the holiday takes on a quite different meaning and celebration. Yes, people still make ham or turkey dinners—but might have a barbecue instead.

We spent the past week on the South Island, and I thought that maybe the bigger city of Christchurch would be more Christmassy. No such luck. Sure, there were a few decorations around, but most of the songs I heard in stores were either current or oldies pop; I only heard Christmas music in the local department store.

I shopped a little the afternoon of the 23d, but had dropped by 4:30. On a whim, I wandered over to the cathedral to see if there was a service either that evening or this morning before we had to leave for the airport. No such luck—but a choir was rehearsing, so I joined several dozen others who were enjoying the music. A woman in blouse, skirt, and dress shoes, apparently pinch-hitting, mopped the transept, in front of the two large, lovely bouquets of white lilies placed before the lectern and the pulpit.

 The choir was small and old-fashioned—a dozen men, a dozen boys, all in cassocks, singing in Latin. The boys, half a dozen in the front row on each side, looked as if they’d simply been gathered up at a local playground. The one on the outside on the left was wearing black flipflops, no doubt as a sign of respect; lots of New Zealanders wander around barefoot (even in grocery stores and hospitals, but that’s another story). The third boy in that row looked as if he had come and would leave by skateboard, and he cheerily lip-synched the soloist, two spots farther down. The soloist was slight, sandy-haired, and shy-looking, but had the requisite high, pure voice (why is it that pre-pubertal boys can have such angelic voices?). When he wasn’t singing, he tended to fiddle with the candlestick in front of him.

The music wasn’t familiar, and I caught only a few of the words (hodie, dominus), but the loveliness of the music—the organ, the intertwined voices—was enough to keep me there, and give me the most Christmas spirit I’ve had all month. Truly, sweet singing in the choir.



  1. […] a pohutukawa tree. Usually the trees bloom red in December (see, but this one is said never to have blossomed in the 800 years Maori have been […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: